Swimming with whales in Tonga

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I’ve always jumped at the opportunity to swim out to wild dolphins, I didn’t imagine swimming with whales. So I travelled to Tonga to do exactly that.
I landed in the islands of Vava’u, with a quick skate from the airport dodging potholes I got a feel for Tonga. Palm trees, pigs running around, locals in the back of run-down pick up trucks. A classic pacific island life, but it has something special.
Vava’u gives a perfectly sheltered sanctuary for humpback whales to give birth so every year they migrate there. This gives us a chance to get in close and personal with these giants and the babies.
With wild animals its hard to know if just one day is enough, plus I was there to photograph the whales so I’d like to make sure I got quality images. A month in vava’u, 11 days of that I got to swim with the whales thanks to Vaka Vave whale swim. There some were amazing days, and some average days but then I had to kick myself and look at what I was doing. I was swimming with whales, never had I thought that would be possible.

Out on the boat at dawn, crawling amongst the island scouting the horizon for ‘blows’, which is a faint puff as they breath. Once we spot some we’d creep over, wait 10-15minutes until they surface again. The local legend Izy from who guided us would go spot the whale in the water to see if they would be worth swimming with. There wasn’t a huge rush, we’d see whale after whale, but the key would be looking at the signs if they would stick around or leave. He signalled that it was a ‘singer’. The night before at the accommodation I heard of all the stories and what a ‘singer’ was. I was frothing and hoped to witness it. I entered the water and instantly felt what a ‘singer’ was. It hit my body like being at the front of a festival stage. The sound echoed into my body, I needed earmuffs. Here was this massive truck sized male humpback whale 20m underneath. Just laying, singing away. I was in complete awe, forgetting to breath, trying to remember where I should be. As time passed and totally forgetting to take photos, just watching, I really wasn’t ready for the next part. It was slowly raising to the surface and coming right for me, it then really showed it’s true size as it came up to breath.
Back in the boat and adrenaline hitting my body, we were on the search again, this time for a mother and calf. It didn’t take long to find one close by. It was brief but amazing to see this curious calf cruise past. I couldn’t believe how many whales there were, it was just a matter of looking. Not all days were like that though, sometimes a couple of hours till we found a whale that wasn’t travelling or diving deep. But it made it more special when you did find one that was curious.

I met some awesome friends there but spent most of my time with an absolute weirdo like me, Mel, who’s travelling the world for a year studying cetacean research and coral rehabilitation as a Rolex Scholar. She’s doing some amazing stuff which I highly respect. She’ll be out swimming with bull sharks and telling me to ‘man up’ and ‘stop being a pussy’ to further explain they’re actually mistaken. To see such a short chick so confident and passionate about them its got me somewhat open to maybe getting down deep without a cage. Truely inspiring. It was pretty cool to have met her in Tonga, really made it for me, going on on adventures.

Vava’u isn’t like all pacific islands, its not surrounded by endless beaches, more so, large cliffs, but there’s some hidden white sand beaches for those who know where to look. A boat makes life a lot easier. Mel and I decided to get away from the main island of viva’u. A mosquito net, machete, towels, water and bread was all we had. Dropped by boat at sunset we fetched some long sticks to make a teepee for our shelter and faded next to a fire. The next morning our jaw dropped, white sand beach. It was gorgeous. I know exactly where I’m going back to next, living off coconuts and rum. Sadly there’s a downside to this beautiful place.

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Tonga is really really beautiful but being a developing country, the rubbish is a problem like any place. Don’t get me wrong its clean, very clean but for islands they have it harder. One, it’s an island with limited space and no recycling. Two, majority of locals knowledge not knowing that every piece of plastic will last many life times and having a dependancy on convenient plastic. Sadly its our input and importation that has brought this to the islands. Our want for coca cola and sprite in bottles and cans, shampoo and conditioner, the plastic bag and straws. Travelling to lesser developed countries you still see the use of banana leaves for serving food, or coconut bowls and palm fronds used for everything. It’s something hopefully more islands pick up on and get back to their roots. Sadly, though it’s fading and hard to see a change.
It truely has a massive affect on the environment. Some of the photos featured show an amazing beach but in true honesty, turn 180 degrees and you’ll face a massive beach full of thousands of bits of rubbish washed up from the winds. Yes I thought it would be nice to spend a day cleaning it up, but the more I see of it sadly I feel it’s only me sweeping it under the rug and moving it to a less visible area. A better way I’ve found is being super blunt with the locals when I talk to them, if they ask me if I like Tonga, I would reply “yes, I love it but its very disgusting…” To which they look shocked, then to further explain how bad the rubbish is. That I feel that will have a better longer affect, when the truth hits home that their beautiful land can turn into a trash pit quite easily. Generations can be taught from that one person learning rather than being told do it this way. But who knows it’s not an easy game. They’re still developing, even our own country is far from perfect.

Sitting in the water with several massive male whales swimming right for you barging into each other in competition, chasing behind the female can be quite scary place to be. This is a ‘heat run’, we’re dropped off ahead of the commotion. In weird way it’s all a slow motion speed, they know where you are, they will swim underneath or around you. But its just unscripted madness. You just don’t know how they are going to form. One heat run I swam to join them, as I swam over the reef drop there’s a two males underneath, mother and calf right in front, then another male already ahead swimming back to make sure I wasn’t a male threat. Another heat run, I was able to follow the madness as 3 males chased the female, then all the males turned around at once kicking their tails sending me in turbulent waters and blowing a wall of bubbles so I couldn’t follow anymore.

With tourism comes money, but that tourism is coming from the whales. If there’s no whales there goes the main tourism. Luckily the there’s a great bunch of great operators that put the whales first and the customers second. The whales boundaries are the whales boundaries, the guides will tell you if you’re in the wrong and make it very clear. They really care for the whales which I find hugely important. I was unsure at first about swimming with the whales in Tonga. When I swam with whale sharks in Mexico, it was a shit show. It was disgusting, a hundred boats swarming 30-40 whale sharks. People jumping in everywhere. It was rushed and horrible to the animals. Not a moments rest and purely amount making money, pleasing the customer.
Tonga was the opposite. There’s certain rules to follow so you’re not bugging the whales, 2 people in the water at once with the guide and limited time a boat can be near the fresh calf then an hour gap before any other boat can arrive. No boats out on Sunday. There’s communication between boats. It was relaxed, but of course sometimes the whales don’t stick around forever so if you don’t listen and get in when you’re supposed to, you’ll miss out. 
Over my time there I learnt some operators aren’t co-operating with some of those rules. With further room for improvement, hopefully there’s refinement over all the registered operators and a better structure so standards can be kept. Couldn’t recommend Vaka Vave whale swim and Whales in the Wild any higher. But good luck you might need to wait a year or more in advance to book.

Tonga opened my eyes up to the ocean. When I was back in Sydney watching the humpbacks pass by, hearing everyone in excitement… I just smiled, I had just spent a month swimming with them. Cheers to the awesome crew that took me out, especially Izy, Diane and Andrew from Vaka Vave along with Phil from Whales in the Wild. Fruit loops; Roanna and Mel for keeping me sane but even more for Mel putting up with me on adventures around Tonga, and the mad man Jeff who travels the world hiding treasure. Tonga was amazing!
I now have an even greater respect for these animals, not just the sheer size, but the graciousness they have around them, the intelligence then to see them launching out of the water. Its something I will never forget.

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